Walk through a graffiti-tagged corridor, under a light rail bridge, past the cars hurtling down the Jones Falls Expressway and you've entered what some believe could become a wonderland.
A group called Section 1 envisions a skate park built under a labyrinth of highway support columns. They see concrete walls as canvases for street artists. A weedy lot, the setting for food truck rallies and art fairs. And an overgrown field near CSX tracks could hold a concert stage with space for an audience of thousands.
"This is many people's entrance to Baltimore," said Richard Best, Section 1's founder and executive director. "We want them to see good stuff as they come in."
As Best and a collaborator, Toby Blumenthal, led visitors on a tour this week, the ground was strewn with litter. Feral cats skittered into weeds. A man in rumpled clothes appeared, warning that the police would arrest trespassers.
But Best, a 31-year-old Army veteran and former military contractor, sees only promise here. He hopes to persuade the land's owner, the Maryland Transit Administration, to lease the plot and allow his team to transform it.
He would like to complete an initial phase of the project — cleaning up the site and fencing off hazardous areas — in time for next summer's Artscape festival.
While the Section 1 team has yet to come up with a cost estimate, the project has garnered support from the nearby Maryland Institute College of Art, the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts and developer Toby Bozzuto. A spokesman said the University of Baltimore also applauded the concept. Even Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's office says she is intrigued.
"It's a junk piece of land," said Section 1's president, developer Sam Polakoff, who served as the project manager for the Baltimore School for the Arts' $30 million renovation. "That makes it easier for everyone to buy in."
An MTA spokesman said the agency was in "continued discussions" with Section 1 but had not made a final decision.
"They need to supply us with more information so we can properly analyze the request. When the final proposal is in, it will be reviewed by multiple departments within MTA. But we continue to talk with Section 1 about the project in the meantime," spokesman Paul Shepard said in an email.
Best, a Station North resident, conceived of the park while he was a student in a dual graduate program run by the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and the Maryland Institute College of Art. He graduated from the program in the spring with Master of Business Administration and Master of Arts degrees.
A street artist friend invited Best to meet him in the space, which can be reached by a path that begins behind The Fitzgerald apartment building.
"He gave me this treasure map," said Best. "I never even knew this place was there, and suddenly I was in this endless, massive space."
The walkway heading into the plot is visible from southbound Interstate 83 as you approach the Maryland Avenue exit. The tops of trees from a wooded section of the lot can be seen below the highway when heading north toward the 28th Street exit. The land is bounded by train tracks, and, behind a thicket, the muddy gush of the Jones Falls.
Best began working on his plan during graduate school, drawing up proposals and speaking with stakeholders as part of his course work. He drew inspiration from projects such as New York City's High Line, which turned an elevated train track into a skinny park, and Miami's Wynwood Walls, a massive street art project that has revitalized a once-derelict neighborhood.
Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, sees similarities between Section 1 and the Baltimore Farmers' Market, which his office runs under another section of highway overpass.
"I think it has potential as an art park," said Gilmore, who has accompanied the team and MTA officials on site visits. Gilmore said he was less certain of the feasibility of holding large concerts in the site, because of the challenges of creating sufficient entrances and exits to the space.
A spokeswoman said Rawlings-Blake "looks forward to learning more about the organizers' plans for this area."
"The concept is intriguing; however, there are still steps that the organizers must take to bring this idea to fruition," spokeswoman Caron Brace said in an email, adding that the team is slated to meet with transportation officials and have further meetings with Gilmore's organization in the coming week.